Having Hard Conversations in Your Personal Learning Network

In Response to Tom Whitby’s The What and Why of a Professional Learning Network, and Paul Moss’ Why Learning Through Social Networks Is The Future.

The great thing about Personal Learning Networks is that you form a breezy, fluid relationship with people you respect and admire, people you can learn from and teach to. If my PLN existed in the real world, it would be a massive cocktail party made up of only the people I find interesting, chattering away in infinite circles of fascinating conversation, waiting for me to drop in to the threads I like. It’s easy, casual, and often done strictly for the joy of learning.


What it’s not, though, is a place where someone will call me on my mistakes, mentor me in a new way of working, hold me to professional standards, or put an unreasonable amount of time and energy into pushing me to the next level in my professional development. It’s not a place where someone will require me to master a concept or skill I don’t want to learn — I am free to flit away into any of my other infinite circles to follow my curiosity. At best this means I’ll be constantly inspired and motivated– at worst, it means that I have the freedom to ignore the subjects I don’t like and just focus on topics that are comfortable and exciting for me.

In other words, it’s not the same as “college”, it’s more like “adult extension classes”.

This is great for lifelong learners, but it’s problematic for students who avoid certain subjects rather than deal with the discomfort of learning outside their comfort zones. It’s problematic for students who require extra hand-holding, behavior work, and remediation for existing gaps in learning. It’s problematic for certifying professionals who may not see the need for knowing a given set of skills, but whose professions require them.

How do you have hard conversations with people in your PLN?

Some MOOC theorists point to the distributed nature of Connectivist-style cMOOCs and Personal Learning Networks as an alternative vision for modern education. This view neglects that these courses are mostly full of highly educated professionals who’ve already mastered the skill of “learning to learn”.

When we talk about “fixing education”, it’s usually not the middle-class educated professionals that we’re trying to save.

Young, poor, and underprepared students require “warm demanders” to hold them to rigorous standards by offering support and individualized attention. It often requires a caring and committed adult to address student behavior issues (even extreme ones) before working on mastery of skills and content. This process is difficult, messy, draining, and important for getting through to struggling learners. These are the kinds of challenging interactions that, if they happened to you at a cocktail party, you would flit to another more pleasant conversation. Teachers are paid (not to mention internally motivated) to stay present and engaged through extremely unpleasant interactions with challenging individuals.

How can PLNs grow from pleasant pastimes to rigorous learning relationships?

If cMOOCs and PLNs are to become a viable vision of education in the future, how can you get people to take personal responsibility for one another’s learning? How can we build learning networks that bind people together in true interdependence rather than just surface-level politeness? How can we support struggling students to work through whatever blockages they come in with to attain professional standards of learning in uncomfortable subjects?

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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